Sharp focus on U.S.-China research collaborations has implications for Canada

Lindsay Borthwick
January 22, 2020

On university campuses and research institutions in the United States, scientists with links to China are under increased scrutiny as the U.S. government's concern about improper foreign influence mounts. The same is true in Australia and the United Kingdom, two other countries in which protectionist and anti-Chinese rhetoric is on the rise. Time will tell whether this perceived “China threat” will have a chilling effect on bilateral research between China and those nations—or even on global science. But a recent study examining the impact of research collaboration with China suggests the benefits vastly outweigh the risks.

The study focused on research partnerships between the U.S. and China, but its conclusions are relevant to Canada, which collaborates more with China than any other nation other than the U.S. It also serves as a reminder to policymakers everywhere that in an age of global science, the open exchange of ideas and the mobility of academic talent, including foreign researchers and students, is critically important.

“Looking at the data, we see that China is contributing much more heavily in these bilateral research arrangements than the United States. Chinese scientists are doing much more for the advancement of global science in terms of intellectual leadership and funding,” said senior author Jenny Lee, Professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY.

"This is certainly a lesson that xenophobic fears about foreigners coming in to steal secrets need to be weighed against actual evidence. What contributions are those researchers actually making? How important are they to the knowledge that's being produced in these countries? How much do they currently collaborate, and what would happen if we no longer collaborated internationally?" she said.

Scientists Under Scrutiny in the U.S.

In 2018, the U.S. moved to restrict student visas for Chinese students in sectors with potential applications to national security, such as robotics and aviation. Visa delays and rejections for visiting Chinese scholars have reportedly become more common. And in 2019, the FBI visited U.S. universities and urged administrators to monitor Chinese students and scholars with connections to certain Chinese companies and research institutions. The National Institutes of Health also investigated more than 180 scientists—most of whom were of Chinese descent—for violating its policies requiring grantees to report foreign ties.

Furthermore, last September, the new White House science advisor, Kevin Droegemeier, released a memo outlining his priorities and warning that U.S. science faced “new and extraordinary threats.” It continued that the U.S. must strike a balance between “the openness of our research ecosystem and the protection of our ideas and research outcomes.”

A 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times documented the negative impact of these policies and regulations on Chinese students and scholars on University of California campuses, who reported visa delays, scrutiny of their research activities by federal intelligence agencies, and restrictions on collaboration with China.

In response to Droegemeier's memo, prominent science, engineering, and international education organizations urged the U.S. to take a more targeted response to the threat that would not impact the overall scientific enterprise.

That view was recently echoed by the JASON advisory group in a report on research security to the National Science Foundation. While acknowledging the problem of foreign influence, the group concluded: "the benefits of openness in research and of the inclusion of talented foreign researchers dictate against measures that would wall off particular areas of fundamental research."

Canada attracts future academic talent

That's a lesson Canada may want to take to heart, given its strong track record of collaboration with China and evident appeal to students and scholars from abroad.

In 2018, Canada issued 142,765 student visas to Chinese citizens, many of them students in STEM fields. (By comparison, more than 350,000 Chinese students and scholars went to the U.S. in 2018.) On a per capita basis, Canada attracts more students from China than any other country in the world. Indeed, thirty-two percent of international students in Canada come from China. At the doctoral and equivalent level, China is the top source of students studying at Canadian post-secondary institutions, according to Statistics Canada.

Why Canada? A 2018 survey conducted by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) found the top three reasons why international students choose Canada were the quality of Canada’s education system, reputation as a tolerant and non-discriminatory society, and reputation as a safe country. Additional factors include the relatively low cost of education and favourable immigration policies.

It is likely that Canada’s reputation as a safe, multicultural and tolerant nation will continue to make it attractive to prospective students from China. Indeed, there is already some evidence that Canadian universities have experienced a so-called “Trump Bump.” For example, Inside Higher Education reported last October on the results of a survey conducted by the international admission team at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The survey found that eighty-seven percent of the college counsellors in China said their students and their parents are now reconsidering plans for study in the U.S., and that a significant number of them now looking at other countries, including Canada. Leading their concerns about the U.S. were safety issues, student visa difficulties, cost, and the Trump administration's policies and anti-immigration rhetoric.

Quantifying US-China collaboration

Lee has been studying xenophobia and discrimination faced by international students for more than a decade. Spurred by reports that Chinese researchers were being newly targeted in the U.S., Lee and her co-author John Haupt analyzed U.S.-China collaboration data from 2014 to 2018, compiled from the Scopus database. They found that without Chinese scholars, productivity over that five-year period, as measured by total number of publications in science and engineering, would have declined by 2 percent, whereas with Chinese collaboration, U.S. research output grew more than 2 percent.

Second, they studied whether Chinese researchers were contributing intellectually to the generation of new knowledge, by looking at whether first authors were affiliated with China or the U.S. Lee and Haupt found that forty-nine percent of first authors were affiliated with China, suggesting that Chinese scholars were making a meaningful contribution to the research.

The authors also examined a third factor in research collaborations: funding. Surprisingly, they found that seven of the top ten funders supporting the collaborative research were Chinese, and Chinese research funders like the National Natural Science Foundation of China supported 3.5 more publications than U.S. funders did.

Lee said the results suggest policymakers need to consider the long-range consequences of limiting scientific exchange.

“In the U.S. right now, there’s a lot of trepidation about foreigners coming in and stealing. Concerns about intellectual property and where it goes, how it's used and how it's owned are valid. But oftentimes they are not being weighted against the consequences of sweeping policies that don't carefully consider the repercussions of cutting ties or making scientific collaboration very difficult,” said Lee.


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